Terry Promane: Give Me 5

At the time of this writing, I had just attended an arranging clinic by John La Barbera who was the spring visitor at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto where I teach.  He outlined 5 cornerstones of arranging for our students that were his guide and the basic fundamentals of his pedagogy.  Coincidentally, a week or so before, I was approached by Paul Read who suggested I write an article for the ISJAC Blog discussing my favorite arranging tactics.

Most of these ideas have been compiled over 25 years of teaching at U of T and playing on countless recording sessions and concerts, mostly with Toronto based jazz artists. 

To be specific, I’ll present ideas here that have helped me develop a good sound as well as saving time and aggravation in the studio or preparing music with few rehearsals.  With the ever-changing sensibility of the current music business (meaning, not many players are free to rehearse all day as in days gone by) things need to be correct and clear. 

  1. Give Me More

I’ve had the pleasure of playing with and writing for some serious players. When  the chance presents itself, I will check out other writers’ scores and parts and check the level of detail in not only my part (the trombone part) but also the rhythm parts.  I’ve seen charts with everything possible included and others with virtually nothing.  The most economical example of drum part writing (as VJO drummer John Riley points out) is the 3 bars of crayon from Thad Jones on the original “Little Pixie ll” drum part.  Legend has it that Mel Lewis had a photographic ear and only need a once-through, rarely opening the book.  Others writers like Maria Schneider fill up all the parts with detail. 

For me, too many parts with slashes are a problem.  Over the years I have developed into a control freak needing to dictate as much of the texture as possible.  From years of not getting what I wanted, and then learning how to get exactly what I want, this seems to be the approach best suited to my needs. 

Bass

Bass gets the most slashes, but considerable suggestions are included on the page.  Many of my ideas these days are based around ostinatos and straight 8th grooves in various time signatures, so dictating that information is important.  Straight ahead swing material gets the standard 4 slashes and chord symbols with the occasional push here and there. 

Guitar

In my charts, the guitar rarely sees slashes except for open blowing sections.  Most of the melodic content is backed up by guitar voiced in unison or octaves with other sections.  I’ve heard players comment that they know it’s a chart of mine because of the wall-to-wall guitar cues.

I realize this sounds counter-intuitive considering the clichéd reputation of guitar players as not being able to read well – so I email them copy days ahead of the session.  They are always appreciative.  Thankfully, Toronto is loaded with very talented guitarists who are exceptional readers.

Piano/keys

Years ago, while handing out parts in a rehearsal I put down a typical (swing with slashes) piano part in front of Don Thompson (who loves to play…everything!)  He looked at me and said, “What am I supposed to do with this?” Since then, moving forward, I now include as much material as possible in all of my piano parts.  They are more like 2 stave conductor’s scores including all melodic cues and harmonic rhythms. 

The resulting piano parts are enormous, but the piano player is directly connected to the entire scope of the piece.  In Don Thompson’s mind slashes meant nothing in that situation.  Considering the guitar is often busy with melodic content, the sole role of the keyboardist becomes to intelligently comp in and around the rest of the band.  A detailed piano part helps the keyboard player do this effectively.

A different approach is to give the pianist a master rhythm part. In this situation all the rhythm section players play from the same detailed part.

2.  Caught in the Middle

Middle C was the first note I learned as a 5 year old during my first piano lesson.   Conservatory piano lessons were what the kids in my family did, although I know that this is clearly not everyone’s experience.  Today, with the proliferation of guitarist, bassist, drums and vocalists in most post secondary music institutions, middle C or the grand staff for that matter, may be mysterious concepts for non-keyboard players.

The age old question of why are so many trombonists have become great arrangers and composers remains.  One reason is that trombonists have a firm understanding of that note and how middle C feels and sounds!  (I’ll put piano players on that list as well).

The concept remains quite simple.  Above middle C is where the majority of melody rings and below middle C is where arrangers need to be careful voicing.  I toured extensively with Rob McConnell in the Boss Brass and then, much more frequently, with the Rob McConnell Tentet.  On the rare occasion that Rob would actually talk about writing, he did divulge one secret.  We were on a plane and for whatever reason he was describing his favorite Ab 13 voicing of Duke Ellington – and then out of the blue he says “ you know TP, I rarely voice a tri-tone above middle C, then went on to another topic.  Most likely ordering another bloody Mary!

That was a serious light bulb moment for me and gave me a firm understanding why Rob’s sound was indeed Rob’s sound.  Tri-tone at or below middle C with the melody above middle C supported by a triadic formation that rarely included the 3rd or flat 7!  That is a general statement to say the least, considering all of the ?/V7 variants available, but I’m sure you get my drift!

I show my students a demonstration using 2 hands – in the left, tri-tone and in the right, melody tension, tension (and in many cases, another tension).  With both thumbs on middle C, the arranger can feel where all the action is going to happen – between the hash lines - to use a football example.  In my experience, the close voicing is rare and if used is mostly in cluster voicings or to depict a classic “Supersax” sound.

Understanding middle C will help young writers avoid the pitfalls of writing melody that is too low or too high, and voicing below safe low limits.

Without meaning to linger too long on voicings, I feel that a modicum of “arrangers piano” is required to advance to the next level.  I was certainly guilty of dead voicings until Frank Mantooth gave me a copy of his jazz piano method book, “Voicings”.  This book hammered home principals I still teach today including balanced right/left configurations and what Frank called symmetrical 6/9 Miracle Voicings.

3.  Don’t Forget Your Pencil

As a freelance musician I sadly break the cardinal rule:  Always bring a pencil to rehearsal.  I never have a pencil, but as a writer, I always use a pencil.

I just turned 55 so I started writing in the early 80’s.  We used pencil and score paper and copied parts by hand.  I began writing (as many of you have) analog style, well before digital.  The organic process of putting pencil to paper has become vital to my process – it’s free from, right click, left click, shift/command/M/4….command Z…command S…..

John La Barbara and I both agreed that there was something special about the writing process with a piano.  There is a tactile connection to the sound that stimulates ideas that does not exist while composing at the computer.  Check out a book “Steal Like An Artist” by Austin Kleon.  It’s a fun read by a young writer who supports the idea of stealing from the masters (in a good way – you have to read the book), but also having some separation between the use of the pencil and the computer to stimulate your creative juices.  Most of my ideas are hatched on a lead sheet with melodic variants and chord substitutions.  It’s very remedial looking, but it keeps me on track when I get the computer going.  A double stave rough sheet for elaborate orchestrations is best for me.

Maria Schneider was a distinguished visitor at the University of Toronto a few years ago.  She set up shop in my office for the week complete with a 32 stave score pad on the piano, no bar lines (you’ll know the one if you’re old enough) and sketched ideas with no restrictions to the melody, harmony or meter.  It’s a great format (although I’ve never had enough solid ideas to fill up 2 staves)!

4.  The Long and the Short of it!

From the biggest most elaborate film sessions to the tiniest demo – the one thing that can kill the clock is a lack of attention to detail - specifically articulation.  This also applies to rehearsing new material with professionals who have little time to waste.  Eating up recording or rehearsal time putting in articulations in a killer!  You won’t realize your potential regarding feel and accuracy if you fail to go the extra mile.  My students pay for this as a minus 10% but in professional circumstances you’ll feel it in your pocket book. 

I’ve sat down in studios with charts with no indication of long/short/loud/soft and it’s a signal that things are going to go badly…and it goes real bad, I’ve seen it countless times.

Attention to detail shows the professional player that you know what you’re doing.  From articulations, to formatting parts, correct rehearsal numbers and dynamics is a subconscious signifier that you are on the case.  Without these vital ingredients, there is a good chance the orchestra will give you right back what you deserve.

5.  Make it hip, not hard!

Over the years, I’ve written some pretty unmusical material.  Over time, I’ve realized that there was something to be said for writing music that feels good, sounds good and is easy to play.  Good music that great musicians want to play - it’s a no-brainer.  The tipping point was when I decided to emulate my elders in Toronto.  Here is a quote from the liner notes I composed for the Dave Young/Terry Promane Octet Volume 1.

This CD embodies what many have called “The Toronto Sound.” This is not a conscious effort, although Toronto jazz composers, arrangers and performers have been a part of an unconscious musical movement akin to the Group of Seven painters.  This goes back further than my memory, but Dave Young was on the ground floor with Phil Nimmons, Rob McConnell, Rick Wilkins and Ron Collier, all pillars of the local and our national jazz consciousness.   

The Toronto sound is complicated, but generally relies on a few crucial ingredients; exciting, well crafted and uniquely voiced arrangements, a distinctly Canadian musical sensibility, impeccable tuning, flawless execution and world-class solos.

What I didn’t mention is that Rob McConnell et al really knew how to write great sounding stuff that was easy to play!  Sure there’s going to be some high notes, and some blistering sax work, but it’s not the main event!  It’s all part of the story, the big curve of the piece.  When I started in the McConnell band I couldn’t believe how easy it was…I mean, it was soft, no high notes, great intonation and it swung like hell.

In the end, it’s all in the details.  Pay attention to inventive melodic composition, and harmony and stay away from gimmicks.  Write what you hear and make it accessible to a wide range of abilities and your music will sound great! 

Terry Promane,

Toronto, Ontario CANADA

March, 2017

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Editor’s note: Please check out one of Terry’s composition, this time for jazz 12tet, “The Icemaker’s Mistress”. This is a track from the CD, “Trillium Falls” which can be found at https://itunes.apple.com/ca/album/trillium-falls/id1210913574

Both full audio and pdf score are included here:

The Icemaker’s Mistress

Click here for the full score

More info about the highly acclaimed University of Toronto Jazz Program along with lists of other recordings, please go to www. uoftjazz.ca


About the Author:

TERRY PROMANE is an Associate Professor at the University of Toronto specializing in jazz trombone, composition, and orchestration. He is a member of many of Toronto’s most prestigious jazz groups including the Dave Young/Terry Promane Octet, the Rob McConnell Tentet, The Boss Brass, the Mike Murley Septet, the John MacLeod Big Band, the Dave Neill Quintet, the Kirk MacDonald Jazz Orchestra, and the Carn/Davidson 9. He was twice named ‘Jazz Trombonist of the Year’ by ‘Jazz Report’ Magazine, and nominated for three consecutive years as the National Jazz Awards’ ‘Trombonist of the Year’ and ‘Arranger of the Year’. As a freelance musician, Promane is a first-call session player who can be heard in countless feature films, documentaries, jingles, and in pit-bands for dozens of hit musical productions.  He has performed with Holly Cole, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Mel Torme, Natalie Cole, Aretha Franklin, Kenny Wheeler, Bill Holman, Tito Puente, Dave Valentine, Maria Schneider, Vince Mendoza, Gonzalo Rubacalba, and Hilario Duran.